Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Sorrow’s Knot had some big footsteps in which to follow, since Erin Bow’s debut novel Plain Kate was pretty terrific. But I’m pleased to report that Sorrow’s Knot not only lived up to my expectations but exceeded them. This is a fantastic novel, and better than Plain Kate.
Sorrow’s Knot is set in a world that feels a lot like the Pacific Northwest, and draws from (without copying anyone or anything in particular) Native American cultures. The heroine, Otter, is growing up in a village that is almost exclusively made up of women. She is the daughter of Willow, the village’s Binder, whose task it is to bind the dead — both figuratively and literally — so that they cannot return in ghostly form to harm the living. But now Willow is going mad, and making cryptic statements about the binding knots being “wrong” in some way that spells danger for the whole village. When terrible things begin to happen, it’s up to Otter and her friends to piece together disparate bits of lore, get to the root of what’s wrong, and, possibly, change their world.
Bow draws us into the novel from the very beginning with her prose and the unique rhythm of it:
The girl who remade the world was born in winter.
It was the last day of the Nameless Moon, and bitterly cold. For as long as she could, the girl’s mother, whose name was Willow, walked round and round the outside of the midwife’s lodge, leaning on the earthen walls when pains came fiercely. Willow’s hair was full of sweat, and her body was steaming like a hot spring. She was trailed by a mist of ice that glittered in the bitter sunlight. She looked like a comet.
She looked like what she was: a woman of power.
Later, when Bow turns her talents toward describing the restless dead, the result is absolutely spine-chilling. Make no mistake: Sorrow’s Knot is a scary book.
Characterization is terrific: Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket are beautifully drawn and have a great bond with plenty of warmth, humor, and sadness to go around, and the novel’s other characters are well-developed too. No one is a cardboard bad guy here and you really feel like you understand where everyone is coming from, even when they make the wrong choices.
As you might guess by the title, there’s a great deal of sorrow in Sorrow’s Knot, and yet to me this is a more hopeful tale than Plain Kate. For all that I loved Plain Kate, there was sometimes a sense that life was just heaping tragedy on Kate nonstop, while Otter gets to have more peaceful moments in the sun between disasters, and more people who love her.
Read this one if you liked Plain Kate, and also if you liked Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel; like the latter, it’s a story of a young woman who learns something has gone wrong in her people’s spiritual system, and also like Vessel it’s set in a refreshingly non-European world. Read it, too, if you love strong friendships and mother-daughter tales and having the socks scared off you, and romance that’s just enough to add richness to the plot without devouring it. Sorrow’s Knot is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I strongly recommend it.